The eye-popping $526,820 payout to former San Mateo city manager Susan Loftus has at least one councilman thinking of revisiting an idea he let drop last year because of a lack of council support.
Councilman David Lim had proposed an idea that would require the City Council to approve any contract in a public meeting over $200,000 in addition to the three — city manager, city attorney and finance director/treasurer — over which the council has purview. He also suggested that any expenditure between $25,000 and $99,999 be brought before the council in a public meeting. The idea, he said, is to force the council to think about even small line items and to engender public ideas on how best the city should spend its money.
Although the ideas will do nothing to eliminate the perk Loftus earned as city manager, when she cashed out more than 2,000 hours of unused sick leave, Lim said his proposals may have some traction since they will give additional oversight over contracts for high-salary positions and for everyday purchases that add up. Lim had thought about pushing the ideas after members of the council resisted last year, but decided to hold off since there was a lot on the city’s plate — particularly with a management audit of the city’s Community Development Department a top priority.
The council has a new member and may be more receptive to such proposals after the Loftus payout situation, although it is important to note that it is a slightly different, though extremely serious, issue. It was signed off by the council in 2008 and included a perk that allowed her to cash out more than 2,000 hours in unused sick leave. City managers are notorious for not taking time off, working long hours and not calling in sick. A little institutional knowledge about Loftus’ work tenure as deputy city manager would have indicated that she fell in line with those habits and not including a cap on the amount she could cash out could leave the city with a large one-time payout.
But one thing is for sure, when the city hires its next city manager (former Public Works director Larry Patterson is holding the interim city manager position for at least the next few months), there will be a cap on that payout.
A similar situation occurred in Millbrae when former fire chief Dennis Haag received $416,931 for his last year’s pay because of unused time off. While both Haag’s and Loftus’ numbers are large, one good thing is that they do not count toward determining what their pension will be. That amount is tabulated according to base pay. Still, for Millbrae, whose council just decided to ask voters to extend a fire suppression assessment tax that would generate about $1.5 million a year, it’s ironic that a large chunk of that amount is what it had to pay out for Haag’s last year of employment with the city.
No one knows exactly why Christine Wozniak left the Belmont City Council this week, so we are left with the typical “family and personal” reasons. But one thing is for sure, with former councilmembers Dave Warden and Coralin Feierbach off the council, she was left without two of her strongest allies. Wozniak knew what she was talking about and had many of Belmont’s residents in mind when she made decisions. I wish her the best.
Now, the council must choose how she will be replaced. Her term is up in November 2015, so it might be possible to appoint someone for the remainder of the term. But that’s not likely. Another option would be to have a special election. But those get costly. A better solution would be to appoint someone to the position and have them run for election in November for the remaining one year of the term. That way, the council saves money on a special election, but voters still get a chance this year to weigh in.
Kirsten Mercer may have seemed like an obvious choice since she was the next highest vote-getter in the last election, but it seems like the new-look council may want to go deeper into the city bench for someone else.
Jon Mays is the editor in chief of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Jon on Twitter @jonmays.